Strategic goal setting, water and bicycles

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Here’s a salutary little tale about strategic goal setting. It’s no news that there is a global water crisis and that large corporations, which consume 40% of all the water used in the developed world, have an important role to play in being part of the solution.

Which brings us to the dichotomy.

On the one hand, recent research shows that nearly three-quarters of large corporations polled agree they have a responsibility to be doing something. Most say that environmental impact is part of their strategic goal setting. Some even have a (vague) target around saving more water by some time in the (distant) future.

But, drill a little deeper, and you’ll find that less than half those same companies have specific plans to make that happen. They haven’t taken the time to build a sustainable brand.

Somehow, it seems, they expect the goal to eventuate.

Two important reminders about strategic goals

It’s a reminder to all of us to set real strategic goals by degree, not decree. The latest iteration of greenwashing seems to be green-wishing – the art of hoping your company will find its own way to a sustainable future, preferably without too much disruption, inconvenience or accountability.

A reminder too that the way companies set their strategic goals is confused. Strategy (a clear pathway to a distinctive future destination) for example blurs with tactics (momentary responses to market changes), outcomes (the intended results), benefits (what will happen if everything goes well) and conflations (naturally separated ideas pressed together to form a broad objective).

An ambition is usually not a target. Policies, preferences, codes, decrees or guides are also not strategic goals or strategies. They have value in that they may path the way. But in themselves they don’t generate the change.

Organisations commit to strategic initiatives believing they have mandate, proof and planning. Closer inspection shows they have none of these things. They also haven’t linked their strategy, culture and stories, meaning critical elements of their execution are decoupled from their stated intentions.

Phil Driver, author of Validating Strategies, once gave the example of a cycleway to show how easily organisations lose sight of what they must do because they are so fixated on what they think they need to achieve.

A path leads nowhere if nobody takes it

Most people, if they are asked whether a cycleway would benefit a city, will say Yes. But ask them whether they themselves will use the cycleway and they will eventually admit probably not. Instead they think (or hope) that everyone else will use it.

Having a means and an end (or even a set of identified outcomes) is not in itself a strategy. And an agreement in principle is not a go-ahead. Here’s the truism: nothing happens until it happens.

A cycleway (the means) could lead to less congestion, less pollution and more people on bikes (outcomes). It could also mean better fitness and increased health for each participant (benefits). It could boost the city’s appeal as a tourism destination (conflations). But … only if people actually use the cycleway once it’s been built. Simply building a cycleway is not enough – just as simply having a target is not enough.

Without true commitment to the idea, without genuine human motivation, the whole premise of the cycleway falls over. And that’s the hard bit. Finding why change will happen.

Set goals that require genuine effort

When it comes to strategic goal setting, the other problem is that it can be too easy to achieve unspecific targets. At least in name. In the case of the large corporations above, they could achieve their strategic goal of reducing water consumption if everyone drank one less glass of water at work for example. That gets them to the target – but it’s hardly going to save the world.

Conversely, the dilemma with targets that are too tight (especially if there are incentives to achieve them) is that people will give up or change course if things become too hard, or they will cheat the system to get to the reward. I was amused recently to read that while ‘what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done’, it’s also the case that ‘what does get measured (and rewarded) also gets gamed’.

Powerful strategic change is human change

To get around this we look to focus on the human motivations. Some important questions when setting strategic goals are these:

  1. Who must act in new ways?
  2. What do they need to do?
  3. Where’s the proof they will want to try?
  4. What will then motivate them to go ahead and actually do it?
  5. What does success look like? (Is it quantified and time bound?)
  6. Are the parameters for success clear enough for a ruling on pass/fail, yes/no, got there/didn’t get there?
  7. What happens after that to move things forward? (and who will resource that?)

One of the ways we look to fix this is to move quantifying the goal much closer to the front of the strategy conversation. It changes the conversation from “Let’s see how we did, and adjust” to “Let’s plan to make this happen, and then judge our success”. It encourages a responsive approach rather than set and forget strategy. Some people find this confronting – but for us, it’s part of being an adaptive company.

Strategic goals  need specifics

At a time when so many say they want to save the world, the specifics of what they can do, what they will do and what they must stop doing are still sadly lacking. Everyone says they want to take action. But are they the right actions? Are they the best actions? … Are they even actions at all? Those concerns are not restricted to how organisations resolve sustainability issues. They pertain to a wide range of strategic goals that float off into the ether.

How does your goal setting measure up?

If you’re grappling with how to define your future, we can help you talk through what your people will specifically need to aim for. For example, we offer strategic sessions as a great way to bring a group of specialists within your organisation (and beyond) to focus on how you will tackle a specific issue. Maybe over a glass of water.


Photo by marcos quinteiro on Unsplash

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